Cries of the World

By Marilyn Sewell

The time was right for Cries of the Spirit—nothing like it had been done in the late 1980s when I began to create an anthology of women’s poetry focused on spirituality. As a forty-five-year-old MDiv student in Berkeley searching for readings to use in my preaching at Unitarian Universalist churches in the area, I found virtually no women’s voices. The inspirational volume of women’s poetry No More Masks! co-edited by Florence Howe and Ellen Bass in 1973, was an early model but without the spiritual perspective. I began to gather material, mostly contemporary American women’s poetry, but also some poetical prose like that of Annie Dillard. I included some ancient pieces that spoke to women in a contemporary voice, such as those of Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen. I spent hours in the library, rummaging through bookstores, and gathering suggestions from many friends. The work was thrilling, and I never tired of it. Originally, I planned to make a little booklet and copy it at Kinko’s for my fellow students, but my faculty adviser encouraged me to think bigger. I received a grant from the Unitarian Universalist Association to pay for permissions; Beacon Press agreed to publish the book.

By this time I had decided to do a PhD in theology and literature, emphasizing the literature of women’s spirituality. The introduction to Cries of the Spirit became part of my comprehensive examination. That introduction begins: “Not long ago I discovered I have no language. Not just me personally, of course, but women. Women have no language.” I had been influenced by French feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous and Monique Wittig, who brilliantly articulated why women so often fall mute—or, when they speak, are unheard. Cries of the Spirit “speaks to the silences, the gaps,” I said. I discovered that the silences were multiple and layered: there were silences of gender, race, class, sexual orientation. I heard the cries from these varied voices, as I discovered the poetry of Lucille Clifton, Joy Harjo, Rita Mae Brown, Nanying Stella Wong, Nikki Giovanni, and so many others.

I spoke of the revolutionary quality characterizing women’s poetry in the 1960s, when women threw off the constraints of poetic convention and began creating a language to embody their own experience. I further said that women’s poetry could properly be described as prophetic—that is, it shows us where we as a culture have gone astray spiritually. “Women’s writing returns us to the natural world as source, sacredness, fertility, connection, unity,” I claimed. “Such fleshly writing is subversive of the order of things.”

When Cries of the Spirit was finally published in 1991, it was universally acclaimed. It was a Library Journal “Best Book of the Year” and was “Noted with Pleasure” by The New York Times. It was not so much that Cries of the Spirit said anything startlingly new, but it said what many of us intuitively knew about ourselves and other women. It honored women writers as revolutionaries of language and of spirit, and it pointed the way to cultural healing. The anthology began to be used by ministers, male and female; by women’s spirituality groups; in college classes; by women’s writers groups; and it was given as a gift over and over again from one woman to another, to mothers and sisters and friends and women in transition, as a source of comfort and inspiration. To date, over 78,000 copies of Cries of the Spirit have been sold, and the book is still in print.

I received notes of thanks from women and men, young and old, from all over the country. George Ella Lyon, poet and novelist, wrote to say, “We have to find ways to praise creation, to reenact birth in the midst of this great worship of death. Your book does that, Marilyn. It’s an offering, a challenge, a path.” One of our Unitarian Universalist churches reported the following from a Romanian visitor: “Lucia came into our meeting with Marilyn Sewell’s book. . . . She said that she was so inspired by this writing that she now is forming separate women’s groups in the churches of [her city] to start teaching women’s empowerment.” Perhaps the most moving response for me was that of a young woman, Jasmyn Swann, in the July 1993 issue of Seventeen magazine, responding to the question, “What’s the book that changed your life?” Jasmyn answered, “The introduction to Cries of the Spirit . . . had me in tears within the first paragraph. It made me proud to be what I am: a woman.” Jasmyn may have been just fifteen or sixteen when she wrote these lines, and she is now eighteen years older. I wonder about her life: What is she doing now? Has our generation given her what she needs to flourish?

What has changed for women today, twenty years after the publication of the anthology? A lot, and very little.

Twenty years ago, few women were becoming parish ministers. Today, more than half of seminary students are female. Women rarely pastor our largest churches, but they are no longer relegated to the Sunday school class or to the missionary society. Universalists had ordained the first woman back in 1863, but few followed. When I became the senior minister of the first Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, there were only two other women in our denomination who served as solo senior ministers of large churches. Now there are ten, and three others are co-pastoring with their husbands. Sermons are more inviting of personal disclosure, of narrative, of poetical language. Ministers no longer move from church to church as frequently as before, instead valuing longevity and relationship more than professional advancement. In my own profession and in others, sexual misconduct has been called out for what it is, and is less tolerated. Of course, women have entered other fields, such as medicine and law, education and science, in great numbers. Women today have more opportunity to become whole persons—not only are we asked to love and nurture, but we also have multiple opportunities to create and lead.

Because women, both by nature and nurture, experience the world differently from men, the various disciplines in which women now participate are changing—I believe for the better. We are becoming more relational and more cooperative in how we work together. We are beginning to internalize the knowledge that the earth and all her creatures are interdependent. Unfortunately, the male-dominated, ego-aggressive arenas of business and government have as yet to be greatly influenced by the feminine principle.

The masculine world order is being challenged all over the earth, in some places more successfully than in others. It is balance that we need in the larger culture, and we are far from the balance that would allow the sacred feminine to be restored. We are still horrified by news stories of soldiers raping women at will, of sex slaves, of genital mutilation, of women with little defense against HIV/AIDS, of the killing of daughters for violating sexual codes. So for some women, the world has changed very little.

When I first envisioned Cries of the Spirit twenty-five years ago, my initial motivation was to find some women’s poems to use in worship. I had never heard the expression “peak oil.” I had not seen Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, nor had I read NASA’s James Hansen or Bill McKibben. We were not at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I had not yet led a large urban church for seventeen years, growing all the while in my understanding that the earth and its people were increasingly headed toward cataclysm. Nevertheless, in the process of creating my book, my understanding of the significance of women’s voices matured and deepened: I began with a simple desire for inclusion; I moved to the understanding that the status quo was a denial of life and therefore not an option. I wrote in the conclusion to my introduction: “Can we not envision a time when caring for and nurturing both the earth and one another become more important than dominating and conquering? Can we not look forward to the day when we regard all living things as part of the creative matrix, from which we cannot divorce ourselves and survive?”

How does the future look?

I am fearful of times to come, for the poor, in particular, and certainly for women and children, who will be the most vulnerable to social upheaval and economic change. As the world heats up because of global warming, land around the edges of our seas will disappear in many places, and water will be in short supply. Peak oil is already here, some say. More nations will fail, and failed nations will be scratching for survival, as many do already.

Can women save the world? Perhaps not, but the feminine principle—grounded in nature, relational, and inclusive of the oppressed—struggling now to emerge and take its rightful place, could do so. People would find the earth sacred once again, we would eschew violence and value compassion and cooperation, we would trust heart as well as mind, we would consider the children first, we would acknowledge the essential unity that underlies all of existence.

I was forty-five years of age when I began Cries of the Spirit, and I have just turned seventy. I am wiser than I was, sadder than I was, more frightened than I was, and yet undaunted. Here in Oregon I have seen miles of clear-cut forest returned to verdant life; I have seen fathers happily pushing strollers in the park; I have seen anger turned soft when nourished by love; I have seen ninety-year-old women marching for peace. I know that the Spirit of Life is moving among us, and I know that redemption is possible.

History and circumstance are calling us to imagine a different and a better world, and to begin living it. Now. Time is not on our side.

Marilyn Sewell served for seventeen years as the senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, before retiring in 2009. Her latest book is A Little Book of Prayer (2009). She is the subject of a documentary, Raw Faith.

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